LWE’s Directors Will Harold & Paul Jack: Engaging A Live Music Audience In A Virtual Space

An Avatar exploring the virtual Tobacco Dock, a replica of the multi-purpose building in London.
– An Avatar exploring the virtual Tobacco Dock, a replica of the multi-purpose building in London.
Users can fully customize their virtual player.

If one thing became clear during the worldwide shutdown of life in general and live events in particular, it is the fact that the live experience cannot be replaced. 
While it was entertaining at first to watch artists make the most of their forced downtime by performing from their living rooms, it also made it obvious how important the social element is to the gig-going experience. 
Those livestreams that work, i.e. sell a substantial amount of tickets, are the ones that offer something special, something you wouldn’t get in the real world, like multiple camera angles and cinema-worthy production. 
Some of the larger events that hosted their 2020 editions in virtual form faced the challenge of creating a digital world that felt alive. But despite using advanced game engines like Unreal, which allows for awesome 3D renderings, moving through the virtual festival site felt dull and, well, unreal. 
So, when Pollstar was offered a demo by the latest company promising a digital world that’s “immersive,” “realistic,” “vibrant,” and all the other words usually used in this context, our hopes weren’t too high. The surprise, therefore, was all the more pleasant. 
London-based electronic music promoter LWE reached out to social gaming experts Sansar to recreate a virtual replica of the famous London venue Tobacco Dock, which usually hosts a variety of events, from fashion shows to corporate events, product launches, food festivals, and, of course, concerts. 
Will Harold
Oli Green
– Will Harold

As veteran live concert promoters, LWE directors Will Harold and Paul Jack knew perfectly well, that “it’s not enough to just put artists on a stage and broadcast in the virtual space,” according to Will’s own words. Added Paul, “What is possible, and what we’re exploring, is the social interaction, which is a huge part of it.”

The virtual Tobacco Dock can be attended via a fully customizable avatar. Users have different choices of clothing, skin tone, physique, hair, outfits and more. A lot of these customization options are available for free, others, like real-world merchandise for instance, can be monetized. 
Players walk through the venue in third-person or first-person view. The key element is the ability to chat with other avatars, either through an old-school chat window or by speaking through a headset, which will only be audible to avatars standing close enough.
Concerts can be pre-recorded in front of a green screen and programmed into the space. There’s also the possibility to record artists within the real Tobacco Dock and have that merge with the digital space. Alternatively, artists can create their own avatars and perform as a digital version only. Fans only interested in the concert livestream can still do that via the traditional channels like YouTube, Facebook, Twitch and co. 
During the demo, we were taken into a virtual concert space that was themed to match the performing band’s (Everything Everything) album artwork and visuals utilized throughout the album release campaign. 
The band had pre-recorded a concert that was broadcast into various countries at different time zones. During one such broadcast the band itself put on VR headsets and joined the avatars watching the concert to hold an impromptu meet-and-greet.

Paul and Will intend to utilize the digital Tobacco Dock just like the real one. “It will be a dry-hire event scenario. When you come in to build your runway for a fashion show, you’d bring in a very different set of production and layout than for one of our music events. A concert would be set up very differently. We have the ability within the virtual space to bring production in, dress the space, move things around as you would do with a normal venue – with the added advantage that you can do fun things like turning gravity off,” Will explained.
Paul Jack.
– Paul Jack.

Another advantage of the digital space are the countless gamification options. From beer pong to treasure hunts to spontaneous car races – the only limit is the developers’ imagination. Pollstar was led through one venue, designed by live events promoters Elrow, where the player could step behind a lighting console and control the lights in the space. 

Paul and Will believe the gamification elements to play a key role in keeping audiences engaged within digital environments. “Rather than just listening to the music by themselves, it becomes a social platform, which is very much at the heart of what we’re looking at,” said Paul.
The 3D render of the real Tobacco Dock, which was built to scale can be accessed through VR, desktop or mobile. The fully immersive version is available on PC and PCVR, the Mac version is not as immersive as on PC. The platform is always open, not just for ticketed events. “There will be a breadth of content for people to check out, it will become a hub for people to come in and meet like-minded people,” Will explained. 
There are no geographical restrictions, visitors of the virtual Tobacco Dock can come from all over the world, which goes for both fans unable to attend a concert in person as well as international delegates unable or unwilling to fly to a London-based presentation. A dedicated indoor electronic music festival could see international star DJs set up shop in the various rooms and avatars could move from room to room to check them out, while people content with just watching click through the different rooms via channels.
Label partners like Beatport could sell music in virtual record stores programmed into one of Tobacco Dock many spaces, which remain open 24-7 and allow people to gather and discuss music via their avatars, while the virtual day turns into night. 
“We’ve created as much realism as possible, which is exciting about the current level of technology. When it rains, it looks realistic, movement feels natural. It makes it a lot more accessible to a mainstream audience rather than a purely a gaming audience. There’s a large studio of people working on it, we’re very lucky to have some of the creative teams that have been involved in Star Wars CGI development, and Hollywood movies to really take this to the next level,” Paul explained. 
Gamification plays an important role in keeping an audience engaged in the virtual space.
– Gamification plays an important role in keeping an audience engaged in the virtual space.

What separates the spaces Sansar has created from what’s currently out there is the fact that they don’t feel like virtual spaces trying to capture some of the magic of, say, a natural green field or forest enclosure, but rather like digital worlds in their own right, occasionally hosting a concert. 

“Within Tobacco Dock Virtual we’re working very hard on creating a melting pot of human interaction, because that’s one of the joys of going to a large-scale music event. Yes, the music is the central pillar, but it’s also about meeting people you wouldn’t normally hang out with. That element of it is totally exploded out in these kinds of formats,” said Paul.
Like with a game such as Fortnight, millions of people can play at the same time, utilizing countless iterations of the same space running on one server, meaning that each player only gets to play with 99 others in their session. So, while there’s technically no limit to the amount of people able to attend a concert at Tobacco Dock Virtual, you will only ever meet so many during your sessions, which will be limited by the building’s capacity. 
Having a virtual representation of any given venue will come in particularly handy, once live audiences are gradually allowed back inside the real buildings, which both Will and Paul reckon will be toward the end of the year. The possibilities for creating hybrid events bringing together a physical and digital audience seem endless. 
– Photorealistic.
If you’ve ever been to the original Tobacco Dock in London, you’ll confirm that Sansar has done a great job replicating it.

Said Will, “One of the things we’ve learned as promoters over the years is, that for events to be successful, they need to be authentic, they need to feel real and you know, purposeful, and they need to engage with specific tribes of people. And I think this is ever the more important in the digital landscape because you’re opening up this content to a much bigger audience.”

And he concluded, “We’ve built a world that would stand up to any of the current open world format games at the moment. But this is obviously the starting point. Every day, there’s new ideas about how we take this forward. I think there’s huge potential in terms of growth, not just in terms of numbers, but just in terms of the breadth of offering. And we’ll develop alongside the technology, which is constantly evolving.”
Tobacco Dock Virtual will be launched on the weekend of April 2-3, with the Friday dedicated to house and techno, and Saturday to drum and bass. The lineup – over 40 artists performing across 4 arenas – will be announced this week. Attendance is free for all, access is available across all devices and browsers as well as VR headsets.